I’ve never lost my mind, at least as far as I know. But if my grasp on reality ever started to slip, I imagine it would feel much like the experience of watching Apple’s cerebral sci-fi crime drama Shining Girls. When we meet our protagonist Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss), she’s a timid Chicago Sun-Times archivist who shares an apartment with her punk-rocker mom (Amy Brenneman) and a cat. Then, without warning, reality shifts. Kirby comes home to find that she lives on a different floor of the same building, with a husband (Chris Chalk) she remembers only as a co-worker, and a dog. Instead of explaining the twist, the show immerses viewers in her disorientation.
What we do know about Kirby is that she was on track to become a star reporter before narrowly surviving a brutal assault. Only after she regained consciousness did the facts of her life start shifting. Since then, she’s drifted through a series of realities, which arrive with no apparent rhyme or reason. When a murder occurs whose details match those of her attack—the assailant leaves objects in the bodies of his exclusively female victims—Kirby teams up with hardboiled reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to not just catch a potential serial killer, but also make sense of what’s happening to her. The ingredients of a typical male-misogyny, female-trauma narrative are all there in this adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ widely read 2013 novel. Yet Shining Girls, premiering April 29, doesn’t lecture. Instead, like a number of recent series, it uses genre conceits to place audiences inside the perspective of a character forced to reopen historical wounds.
Although suspense takes hold around the eight-episode season’s midpoint, the show moves slowly at first; as frustrating as that can be, it’s the only way to build a world that keeps mutating. Scenes recur, with minimal explanation. Settings, hairstyles, and characters change, often slightly but always suddenly. Instead of a single performance, Moss gives a cluster of them, finely calibrating Kirby’s posture, confidence, and anxiety level to reflect each new reality. The villain, Harper (Jamie Bell), is clear to viewers from the start. The mystery is his apparent omniscience and how it connects to Kirby’s crisis. Because the show sticks so close to her fractured consciousness, we come to appreciate how hard it is for her to survive, let alone conduct such an unusual investigation.
Shining Girls showrunner Silka Luisa uses time travel as a mechanism of control and a way of demonstrating how one man’s violent impulses multiply across generations. It serves a similar purpose in the recent second season of Netflix’s Russian Doll, which makes the New York subway a conduit to Nadia Vulvokov’s (Natasha Lyonne) Jewish-immigrant forebears. HBO’s bloody motherhood farce The Baby, Apple’s sci-fi reckoning with Jim Crow racism in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, and Starz’s haunted-housewife horror comedy Shining Vale, all released over the past few months, use genre tropes to plunge their viewers into the minds of characters haunted by oppressive pasts that leak into the present.
From forced birth to lynching, the atrocities of earlier eras make viscerally terrifying fuel for psychological thrillers because they actually happened—and we still feel their reverberations today. Not for nothing are the protagonists of these shows all women, people of color, or both. For them, like their counterparts in a real world afflicted with virulent new strains of old hatreds, the return of society’s repressed bigotry represents the same existential threat that Harper poses to Kirby. On a show whose purposely bewildering twists function as metaphors for the psychological power aggressors wield over their victims, the only way to stop history from repeating is to confront it. This, you might say, is the method in Shining Girls’ madness.
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